May’s Psalm of the Month: 113A

The fifth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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O’er all nations God alone,
Higher than the heavens His throne;
Who is like the Lord Most High,
Gazing down on earth and sky?

By and large, this setting of Psalm 113 will be new to URC and OPC members alike; the tune MONKLAND appears only in the Trinity Psalter and the gray Psalter Hymnal, not the blue Psalter Hymnal, the revised Trinity Hymnal, or even the Book of Psalms for Worship. However, this regal tune, combined with the eloquent praise of Psalm 113, could easily become a new favorite.

This tune is beautiful any way you sing it, but its majestic aura is best brought out in four-part harmony. Look for places where the rise and fall of the musical lines complement the poetry—for example, “From the dust He lifts the poor” in stz. 4 aligns perfectly with the glorious rise in the melody line, echoed by the bass part under “And from ashes those forlorn.” Especially bring out the psalm’s interjections to “Praise the Lord!” or its Hebrew equivalent, “Hallelujah!” As you sing, let Psalm 113A express your own experience of God’s greatness and his particular goodness to you.

Suggested stanzas: All

Source: New versification by the OPC and URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committees; see also Psalm 113 in the Trinity Psalter

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 113

  • Who should praise him? (vv. 1-3)
  • Who is like him? (vv. 4-6)
  • Whom does he bless? (vv. 7-9)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 113

The psalmist’s exclamation “Who is like the Lord our God?” (v. 5) is due not only to the knowledge that he is “seated on high,” but particularly to the fact that he stoops to look on the heavens and the earth from that immeasurable height (v. 6). The Lord’s condescension (literally, “coming down”—not haughtily but compassionately) is revealed throughout Scripture, and above all in the advent of Jesus Christ.

In her song of praise, Mary rejoiced in this merciful condescension in words reminiscent of Psalm 113 (Luke 1:46-55). The apostle Paul powerfully summarized it in these familiar words from Philippians 2: Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 6-11). What cause for praise!

Applying Psalm 113

  • Who are the Lord’s servants (v. 1, cf. Ps. 116:16)?
  • How are you poor and needy before God (v. 7)?
  • How might v. 9 apply in contexts besides physical barrenness?

The Psalm is a circle, ending where it began, praising the Lord from its first syllable to its last. May our life-psalm partake of the same character, and never know a break or a conclusion. In an endless circle let us bless the Lord, whose mercies never cease. Let us praise him in youth, and all along our years of strength; and when we bow in the ripeness of abundant age, let us still praise the Lord, who doth not cast off his old servants. Let us not only praise God ourselves, but exhort others to do it; and if we meet with any of the needy who have been enriched, and with the barren who have been made fruitful, let us join with them in extolling the name of him whose mercy endureth forever. Having been ourselves lifted from spiritual beggary and barrenness, let us never forget our former estate or the grace which has visited us, but world without end let us praise the Lord. Hallelujah.

—Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 113:9

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

April’s Psalm of the Month: 71

The fourth installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

Spring at West Sayville Reformed Bible Church

Upon You I have leaned from birth,
You’ve guarded all my days;
You took me from my mother’s womb.
I’ll give you constant praise.

Although the twenty-four verses of Psalm 71 form a relatively long text to set to music, the themes of this prayer for deliverance are so interwoven that splitting it into multiple settings would be detrimental. This versification strikes a good balance, offering a compact yet thorough treatment of the psalm. The Psalter Hymnal Committees paired their own new versification of Psalm 71 with Frederick C. Maker’s 1881 tune ST. CHRISTOPHER, most often associated with the hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”

To avoid losing focus amidst the eight stanzas of this setting, try to identify and bring out patterns, themes, and contrasts in the text as you sing. Offset the plaintive cries of stanzas 2-4 with the confident praise of stz. 5. Give special attention to the words of the enemies at the beginning of stanza 4. Place your breaths at special points in the text for emphasis: for example, at the close of the eighth stanza, consider “Who sought to do me hurt,” (breathe) “O Lord, I’ll magnify Your name.” Reflect on your own experience of God’s faithfulness in both your youth and your old age (stz. 6), and sing Psalm 71 not just as a prayer for help but also as a song of triumph.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 4/5: stanzas 1,2
  • 4/12: stanzas 3-5
  • 4/19: stanzas 6-8
  • 4/26: all

Source: New versification by the OPC and URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committees

Tune only: Blue Psalter Hymnal 353, Revised Trinity Hymnal 251

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 71

  • Present affliction (vv. 1-13) vs. anticipated praise (vv. 14-24)
  • Accusations of God’s distance (v. 11) vs. assurance of God’s nearness (vv. 1-3)
  • The cruel hand of enemies (v. 4) vs. the loving hand of God (vv. 3, 20, 21, 24)
  • The self-confident speech of the wicked (v. 10) vs. the trustful words of the godly one (vv. 15, 16, 18, 22-24)
  • Leaning on God in both youth (vv. 5, 6, 17) and old age (vv. 9, 18)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 71

As he hung on the cross, the words of Psalm 71:10,11 (“For my enemies speak concerning me . . .”) were true in all their desolate horror for Jesus. “There was none to deliver him,” because he had willingly delivered himself over to death in order to redeem us. In the words of one of our Lord’s Supper formularies, “He was once forsaken by God that we might forever be accepted by Him.” Because he has so mercifully saved us, we can rest assured that God will never “cast us off in the time of old age” (v. 9).

Applying Psalm 71

  • Psalm 71 has been called “The Prayer of the Aged Believer” (cf. vv. 9, 18). How does it apply to believers in other stages of life as well?
  • How can suffering in your own life be a “portent” (an evil sign) to others (v. 7)? How can filling your mouth with God’s praise (v. 8) change their perspective?
  • Why does the psalmist ask to be supported in his old age (v. 18)? Do you possess the same motivation?
  • Why does God allow you to “see many troubles and calamities” (v. 20)?

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

March’s Psalm of the Month: 42B

The third installment in URC Psalmody’s Introduction to the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal

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Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why are you so disturbed in me?
Trust God, for I will praise Him yet;
My Savior and my God is He.

If you happen to compare Psalms 42B and 42C in the Psalm Proposal, you may notice that their texts and tunes are interchangeable—you can easily sing one set of words to the other melody. That’s because these two versifications share the same meter, or poetic structure. But while selection C (taken straight out of the blue Psalter Hymnal) only treats vv. 1-5 of Psalm 42, selection B is a new and complete versification from Sing Psalms. The text is nicely complemented with the American folk tune O WALY WALY.

Singing Psalm 42B requires special attention not to let the extremely long melody notes sag. For a unique effect consider singing the tune (in unison) as a round, with one half of the congregation beginning a measure ahead of the other half. This musical technique is particularly appropriate for the question-and-answer motifs of Psalm 42.

Suggested stanzas:

  • 3/1: stanzas 1,2, 5
  • 3/8: stanzas 3-5
  • 3/15: stanzas 6-8
  • 3/22: stanzas 8-11
  • 3/29: all

Source: Psalm 42 in Sing Psalms; see also Psalm 42C in The Book of Psalms for Worship

Digging Deeper

Themes for Studying Psalm 42

  • “When shall I come and appear before God?” (vv. 1,2)
  • “Where is your God?” (vv. 3,4)
  • “Why are you cast down?” (v. 5)
  • “Why have you forgotten me?” (vv. 6-9)
  • “Where is your God?” (v. 10)
  • “Why are you cast down?” (v. 11)

Seeing Christ in Psalm 42

“I thirst,” said Jesus as he hung on the cross (John 19:28). The sour wine his crucifiers gave him calls to mind Psalm 69:21, but surely Jesus felt more than physical thirst in his anguish. In words reminiscent of Psalm 42:3, the watching crowd jeered, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now” (Matt. 27:43). As he experienced utter separation from the Lord’s favor, Jesus must have thirsted for God spiritually “as a deer pants for flowing streams” (Psalm 42:1). Truly all of God’s breakers and waves went over him (v. 7), but God also raised him up for our justification.

Through Christ we have access to living water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14), and we have this promise: “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). Hope in God, your Rock and Savior!

Applying Psalm 42

  • What water-related images does the psalmist use to portray his affliction (e.g. vv. 1, 7)? Which ones are most vivid to you?
  • Does frequent absence from God’s house of worship grieve you (v. 4)?
  • Do the breakers and waves of v. 7 indicate God’s absence or his presence?
  • In times of affliction, how would you answer the challenge, “Where is your God” (v. 10)?

Note well that the main hope and chief desire of [the psalmist] rest in the smile of God. His face is what he seeks and hopes to see, and this will recover his low spirits, this will put to scorn his laughing enemies, this will restore to him all the joys of those holy and happy days around which memory lingers. This is grand cheer. This verse, like the singing of Paul and Silas, looses chains and shakes prison walls.

—Charles Spurgeon on Psalm 42:5

Michael Kearney
West Sayville URC
Long Island, New York

(A PDF version of this post, formatted as a bulletin insert, is available here.)

On Psalm Marathons and Similar Endeavors

It’s an exciting time in the history of psalm-singing. In the six years since its release in 2009, the Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Book of Psalms for Worship has become one of the most trusted modern psalters and is gaining use in a wide variety of churches. The Reformed Churches in New Zealand are currently finishing their own carefully compiled psalter-hymnal, Sing to the Lord, which includes the best from a wide variety of psalm-singing traditions. As I mentioned last week, the Canadian Reformed Churches recently completed revisions of the Book of Praise and the English Genevan Psalter. And the United Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are hard at work completing our own new Psalter Hymnal.

With a new psalter comes a big learning curve, of course. Realizing this, many churches and individuals are exploring creative methods to become familiar with the contents of these new songbooks.

The Book of Psalms for WorshipThe Reformed Presbyterian Church prepared for the release of The Book of Psalms for Worship by publishing several “Psalter Supplements” containing provisional versions of texts and tunes, in addition to creating an extensive library of recordings, resources, and informational videos. Now, with the psalter in its fifth printing and available in a dazzling array of formats (even smartphone apps), RPCNA members have no excuse not to be well-acquainted with their new songbook.

The Canadian Reformed Churches ensured that each congregation had a chance to interact with the revised Book of Praise by releasing a provisional version to the churches in 2010. Revision committee chairman Rev. George van Popta comments, “In addition to the quality of the work, the near universal positive reception is also due to how involved the churches were in the process” (see “Book of Praise revision completed,” Christian Renewal, 2/4/2015, p. 16).

Another creative venue for learning the contents of the new psalter is an 8-session “Psalm Marathon” coordinated by CanRC organist Frank Ezinga and hosted at two Canadian Reformed churches on several Saturday evenings this spring. With accompaniment on trumpet, violin, piano, organ, and flute, these singing sessions attempt to familiarize participants with all 150 psalm settings from the revised Book of Praise. For more information, visit http://langleycanrc.org/calendar#event/5489.

Hearing about these unique opportunities for learning new psalm settings makes me long to see similar efforts being put forth in the URCNA and OPC. In particular, we need opportunities to learn these new songs not only individually, but corporately. For example, every night some of my Reformed college friends and I get together to sing two or three selections from the Psalm Proposal and give a rough evaluation of each as regards textual accuracy, singability, and tune choice. So far we’re up to Psalm 22, and while our approach isn’t that rigorous or organized, we’re already finding new favorites in the Proposal’s contents. These informal (or formal) opportunities are critical for a smooth transition to the new songbook in just a few years.

How are you currently learning about the new Psalter Hymnal? What ideas might you have for helping your church or a group of your friends begin to explore its contents? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. Whether it’s a “psalm marathon” or just an informal get-together, I encourage you to actively engage now with the songs future generations will be singing.

–MRK

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Resource: The New Genevan Psalter

The New Genevan Psalter

Fans of the 450-year-old Genevan Psalter had good reason to get excited last year when the Canadian Reformed Churches released a new edition of their Book of Praise with updated settings of all 150 Genevan psalm tunes. For all of this songbook’s great features, however, many of its elements—such as the hymns, doctrinal standards, liturgical forms and prayers, church order, and subscription forms—are only useful in a Canadian Reformed context. Individuals and churches from other denominations or traditions would have little use for this extra material.

Just this week, however, I got word that the Book of Praise’s publishers have released a New Genevan Psalter containing all the updated Genevan psalm texts and tunes without CanRC-specific material! This psalter is intended for use by psalm-singing individuals or congregations from any tradition. For United Reformed congregations, it could serve as a solid Genevan supplement to the current Psalter Hymnal. As its website says, “A congregation that sings the Psalms is rooted in the church of all ages, and a congregation that sings the Psalms set to the Genevan tunes is embedded in the church of the Reformation.”

Rev. George van Popta explains more about the New Genevan Psalter’s purpose in its Preface:

In response to the ever-increasing interest in and appreciation for this precious legacy of John Calvin [the Genevan Psalter], it was thought good to publish a new English Psalter without the specifically Canadian Reformed elements that are included in the Book of Praise. With gratitude to our God we present the New Genevan Psalter to the English-speaking church. May our God be ‘enthroned on the praises of Israel’ (Psalm 22:3) through the use of this book. To him alone be the glory, now, and forever!

For more information, to look inside, or to order, you can visit the New Genevan Psalter’s website: http://newgenevanpsalter.wordpress.com/.

–MRK


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